LONDON—Matter-of-fact and heartbreaking, Vera Drake provides a stoic account of good intentions gone awry through the ordeal of its title character: a selfless, beaming mother hen who helps East End girls who are “in trouble” to “start their bleeding again”—this in 1950, 17 years before abortion became legal in England. As its title would suggest, Mike Leigh’s ninth theatrical release rests largely on the shoulders of lead actress Imelda Staunton, a veteran London stage actress but a newcomer to Leigh’s famously rigorous, immersive rehearsal process, which this time stretched to six months.
“Being able to invent a character from the day she was born is totally unique, I would imagine,” says Staunton, who sat down with the Voice one summer afternoon at Leigh’s production offices in London’s Soho. “And so is the sheer amount of time spent being that person. It feels luxurious, but not unnecessary. It was like having another life. But all the work was done in the moment; you go home and it’s gone,” Staunton says. “You did have dreams in character, though,” Leigh pipes in. “I did,” Staunton concedes. “The night before we did the improvisation where Vera receives her sentence—all night, ‘Oh, what’s it going to be?!’ I was absolutely terrified. Afterward, it was a huge relief.” “And that was her relief you felt,” adds Leigh approvingly.
Vera Drake marks Leigh’s second period piece (after 1999’s stupendous Gilbert & Sullivan epic Topsy-Turvy), and draws subtly on Leigh’s own memories of growing up in post-war Salford, outside Manchester. “I was seven in 1950—my old man was a doctor in a working-class area, and my mother was a midwife.” (Leigh dedicated Vera Drake to his parents.) “I wanted to make a film set in that period I remember very clearly—it feels very immediate and yet extraordinarily remote. It’s a modern age but an age of innocence too. And it was certainly grayer and dirtier and bleaker and browner. When Joyce [Vera’s vain, materialist sister-in-law] is on-screen—in her home, her world, you start to get a whiff of some ’50s Technicolor, the bright plastic covers and the television. That’s the shape of things to come.”
Notwithstanding a recent row in Britain over parental-consent laws, the legal rights of abortion providers simply aren’t subject to debate in most of Europe—which means that, during an election year in which Roe v. Wade (and so much else) hangs in the balance, Vera Drake may carry stronger resonance in the U.S. “This subject has been percolating in my mind for a very long time, because it lies at the center of our existence,” says Leigh—indeed, nearly all of the director’s features somehow touch on abortion or pregnancy. “The film leaves you to debate all kinds of things, but you can’t deny that what I’m conveying is: Change the law to what it used to be, and this is what you’ll get. We’d like to contribute to an ongoing debate in a subtle, unhysterical way that will nonetheless draw out what people care about.”